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Michel Barnier: Coronavirus failings may have played role in UK Brexit shift



A British government effort to distract from domestic criticism over the handling of the coronavirus crisis may have contributed to London’s decision to backtrack on the Brexit deal, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told ambassadors.

Speaking on Monday to senior diplomats from eight Eastern EU countries, Barnier called Britain’s move a provocation and said that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s domestic considerations may be part of the reason for the U.K.’s new approach, according to two EU diplomats and a person briefed on the conversation.

The British government has come under significant criticism at home over its response to the coronavirus crisis, with the country recording more than 41,000 deaths.

After Downing Street last week announced that it planned to override elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson signed with the EU in October 2019, the EU’s negotiator on Monday hinted that may have been designed as a political distraction for his domestic audience.

Barnier also said that London’s strategy in the talks is not transparent but laid out two possible interpretations: The more positive interpretation, Barnier said, is that Johnson is interested in a trade agreement with Brussels but is attempting to gain leverage. The more pessimistic outlook is that the U.K. is ready for a non-agreement scenario, Barnier said, according to two of the individuals.

Barnier told ambassadors, however, that he is optimistic the two sides can find solutions on outstanding points of disagreement such as fish and the so-called level playing field, to agree on a post-Brexit trade deal.

The bloc last week called on the British government to withdraw some of its draft Internal Market Bill “in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month,” warning it has a “number of mechanisms and legal remedies” to address “violations” of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

The next key vote on the bill is expected next Tuesday in the House of Commons.



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